Practice Over Perfection – A Keynote

NYSAIS Keynote(5)

(Below is the text of my keynote talk from August 18th, 2020 including a sample of responses from participants.)

Thank you, NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools), for inviting me to spend some time with you today. I am honored and nervous.

Thanks, too, Jane Anne for the very kind introduction!

I want to share some thoughts about our field, PE, and how we can incorporate anti-racism into our daily practices with students.

First of all, I want us to consider a few things:

  • This is my first keynote address.
  • I’m an actual teacher. A PE teacher, in fact, who just finished her first day of classes.
  • I want us to interact, so I invite you to use the chat to respond to a couple of prompts later and we’ll also leave some time for Q & A at the end.

You heard a bit about me in Jane Anne’s introduction. Here’s a slide to go with that. 😉

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Thinking about what a good keynote should do for folks, here’s what I hope you’ll be able to take away from our time together.

  • I want us to appreciate what’s special about what we do.
  • I hope to encourage us to be braver and more critical observers of our own practice.
  • Help prepare your hearts and minds for the learning ahead.

That’s a lot and think for a moment about our classes: We have students of mixed abilities, interest levels and preparedness, put them all into a class called “PE” and in many cases manage to help those students find ways of engaging, contributing, and applying themselves that can be fun, challenging, awkward, or awesome or all of those, and have most of them leave feeling as good or better than they arrived.

So of course I’ve planned a talk with multiple positive aims!

PE tends to be an all-comers affair, right? and because we as teachers can anticipate that our students will each have their own way of appreciating and/or coming to terms with our offerings, we know that we have to adapt; that one size never fits all. We differentiate and modify our activities. We offer a wide range of movement experiences to give students ideas about the many different ways they can enjoy physical activity. We read up and stay current on new developments in the field and open ourselves to change as we grow and progress. These are the steps we take to be able to serve the remarkable diversity  we find in each of our classes, every time we see them. We also know that no two lessons that we give are ever exactly the same.

Given that, I want us to think about what it means for us as PE teachers to become anti-racist and wholly inclusive in our teaching practices. Now that anti-racism is topping the bestseller lists and making its way into institutional policy and mission statement revisions, most of us are familiar with the terminology and have come to expect to hear about it from a variety of organizations, but what does anti-racism really mean? And what does it mean to teach from an anti-racist stance?

Christina Torres teaches 8th grade English at an independent school in Hawaii. She’s also a prolific writer on education whose thinking I hold in high esteem. She recently published an article on the Teaching Tolerance website that I’ve been quoting a lot lately.

She explains:

“Anti-racist work means acknowledging that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in all aspects of our lives—from education to housing to climate change—and then actively doing work to tear down those beliefs and structures. Those beliefs and structures don’t just exist in primarily white and/or privileged institutions—they thrive there.”  – Christina Torres, “All Students Need Anti-racism Education,” Teaching Tolerance, July 30, 2020.

Consider, throughout your day and beyond, that last part about racist beliefs and structures not just existing in our privileged white institutions but actually thriving there.

A good part of our work from here on out relies on us

1) Opening our eyes to see those beliefs and structures.

2) Adopting beliefs and structures which demand and support full inclusion.

NYSAIS Keynote

Much of the rest of your learning plan for today with Erica Corbin, Lauren Stewart, Worokya Duncan, John Gentile and James Samuels involves unpacking the specifics of what anti-racism is and is not, how racist beliefs and structures show up in our PE practices and also the ways we can mitigate them. They’re the main event. I’m calling them “The Highlights!”

I’m the warm-up act.

  1. Opening our eyes and ears for equity and inclusion takes practice. And that’s where we’ll begin: with a thought experiment. To practice.

Three years ago I was asked to contribute a video response to a provocation for a workshop my friends were doing at a conference on open education.

The prompt was this: What would you do to create a non-inclusive learning environment?

It is truly a provocation!

I made my response specific to physical education and the result ended up being surprisingly clarifying.

Before I go on, I’d like to ask you to imagine what you would do to create a non-inclusive learning environment in PE.

To do that you need to create a picture of what non-inclusive might entail.

What kinds of behaviors would you encourage and for whom?

Which criteria for success would you set?

Please add some of your ideas in the chat box.

[Reading aloud some of the responses.]

Audition. Group kids by ability level. Assume everyone understands the game. Only focus on the students who need the most skill work. Certain sports for girls, other sports for boys. No positive feedback. Only play “American” sports. All games competitive. PE for athletes only. Group by body size. Make every game about winning. Focus on Win/lose only. Play the game without explaining the rules. Charge for PE participation.

Y’all are great at this!

Now I’ll share my response:

In my own response, I identified three main things I would do:

  • Design all the learning around my needs and preferences
  • Keep my evaluation criteria a secret
  • Be absolutely OK with failing students

“What learns us this?” – this is from an old Austrian friend of mine who remembers using this question learning in English back in the 1970’s. It always makes me laugh to hear it but it also reminds me that learning often happens without explicit teaching. How does the experience change us?

What can we learn from such an exercise?

First of all, what I like most is that it forces us to think in practical terms.  What am I doing in my classes? What does it communicate to students about our priorities?

Second, it can help us see our practices in a new light. We can really ask: where is the truth in the ideas I’ve just put down?  How much time do I really spend on the things that I love versus the things that I like less? Thankfully, at my school my colleagues and I have a pacing guide to keep us on track.

And third, It helps us clarify what the most desirable steps in the opposite direction, that is, towards fully inclusive learning environments, could be. For instance, it has become a much higher priority for me to discuss the assessment criteria with students and agree with them on some of the parameters. Transparency.

  1. Here’s the second opportunity for practice:
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Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

One of the struggles we face as high achievers is the not always conscious striving for perfection. We want to get things right. We want all of our students to get it right. In my opinion, education and educators tend to wear out superlatives, especially “best”: best practices, best scores, best schools. Because in pursuit of those highest achievements, we may lose sight of growth, progress and movement. We get so tied up with the end goal, the shiny results, that we take less time and effort to appreciate and recognize the deep value of the process.

When we talk here about clarifying our practices towards inclusion and even better, the assumptions underlying those practices, my request is that you and I, let go of our need for perfection and instead be deliberate in our process (which I expect and hope will be a long one. :-)).

What that means for each of us will vary. We have unique social identity intersections which will influence our starting points and hold particular meanings in our respective contexts. And this is where we have to be radically honest with ourselves:

we can no longer pretend that who we are does not matter in the school house. 

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Photo by Arthur Edelman on Unsplash

I am a middle aged Black American woman teaching in a predominantly white American international school. I am cis-gender, straight, of Christian upbringing and the product of a decidedly elite education. All of those things matter in how I show up professionally and personally with students, colleagues and parents. My challenge, our challenge, is to use our experience and expertise to create learning environments that honor the complexity embodied in each of us and in each student we encounter.

Take a moment to identify yourself. Use the chat box if you like. Just say it in your head or toss a few words down in your notes.

[Reading aloud]

Father.  / Black. Cis woman. Mom. Wife.  / White privileged male / Woman, White, Lesbian / black american cis gender male christian from low socioeconomic class / Latino adopted male / White, cis, male, straight, christian, able body – / white woman from the midle east living and rasing my kinds in the usa today / human / white male, older in age (young at heart), blue collar, middle class / Asian, Female, Christian, Aunt, Sister

 

What do you notice when you do that?

[pause]

[Reading aloud some of the responses]

I see that I’m not the only one. Ideas I hadn’t thought of. Diversity of who is here. Identity is more than I think. Hard to decide which comes first: race or gender. We’re all more than one thing. my own definition has become broader in listening to others. you feel pride. What matters? What doesn’t? Complexity. Exciting with so many things that identify you 🙂  I noticed many of us stated our race when defining self.

Thank you for sharing those.

My students can see that I’m Black. How each of them assigns meaning to my being Black will naturally vary. I also know that I might easily be the only Black teacher these students even encounter in their entire school careers. Their experience with me really counts in a particular way and I want us to develop awareness for those kinds of nuances.

Another example: I wonder about how we honor the complexity of gender identity and acknowledge a spectrum rather than a binary. I’ve trained myself to say “friends” and “folks” instead of “boys and girls” or when forming groups ask students to include “all the genders” (which also gives us an opening to talk about what that means).

And I still feel new at this, still very much ‘under construction’ in this area. I’ve had to let go of perfectionism and embrace the process.

When we look at our programs, I see a few areas where identity and inclusion are very much at the center of students’ thinking in PE, whether we acknowledge it or not. During this talk, we’ve practiced thinking about inclusion and identifying ourselves. We can begin to think about how we invite students to identify themselves, the methods we use to form groups, our protocols and norms for class discussions. These are aspects of our field that are familiar and well worn. Let’s take the opportunity to review these habits and see where we can make them more inclusive, more sensitive to and welcoming of difference.

Remember, process over perfection: Make the attempts, make more attempts, notice growth.

Finishing up here… As you begin your new school years under challenging circumstances, I want to remind you and also myself that students are partners and resources in our classrooms. Yes, they learn from us AND they also use all of their powers to teach us. While they are learning about who they are and wish to be, they are pushing and pulling us to be real with them, to tell the truth.

And guess what! You already have all the resources you need to welcome your students as partners and resources in your learning endeavors!

It’s called listening.

I want to share a little anecdote about dodgeball in a 5th grade class which highlights this idea of students as resources. In a nutshell, some of my more dominant boys wanted to make it harder for tagged players to get back into the game. Some girls objected and pointed out the disadvantage it would create for certain players. Another student, a boy, suggested an alternative way to get back in the game by doing some exercises on the sideline. His idea was shot down in a heartbeat. We had a discussion.

I want to read a part of the essay that tells you how we ended up:

While there was much more to the conversation – more voices, more opinions than the ones shared here – the point for me was developing their awareness. We’re talking about a game and we’re also talking about who we are in the game, and who has power in the game, and how the game makes us feel when we play it and according to whose rules. The conversation was not about dodgeball, yes or no, this conversation was about how we play and what we are creating in the way we choose to play it.

And there’s the key – how we – actually they, students, choose to play. What rules can we agree on and how do we negotiate rules which produce fair and satisfying game experiences not only for a few ‘skill privileged’ but for the entire group? These are the questions I want us to wrestle with from time to time. Because the notion that “it’s just a game” strikes me as a cop out, a way of denying how much more we invest in becoming and staying ‘players’.

In closing and with this example I want to emphasize again the wealth of creativity, passion and purpose we have in our students. They are amazing and so are we!

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Photo by Arthur Edelman on Unsplash

It’s going to take all of us to create learning environments that are fully inclusive, that make space for complex identities and challenging discussions. We have to be able to see ourselves as champions of equity, not spectators. As PE folks we are action and movement oriented, let’s show that in our anti-racist stance. I’m with you.

Let’s go!

We have a little time for questions.

Thank you all so much for having me. All the best for the rest of your learning and for a successful school year!

 

I Worry

I worry.

When I hear the call for help that comes by e-mail looking for a

trainer,

consultant,

someone

who can help us

“have conversations … about these areas.”

I worry.

When I hear the institution is prepared to pay good money

to hear what they already know and continue to pretend not to understand

what is really required for change.

One can always call a task force, form a committee, commission a study

while power remains in trusted hands, there to insure

that the transformation we keep hearing about

does not get out of control, does not go too far,

lest we perish

and our storied bodies turn to salt.

I worry.

When the urgency is so sudden,

the need so dire

since last week, last month

but not since 2014 or 1995 or 1986 or 1968.

When the solutions sought

are thought best to be provided,

imported from elsewhere,

laid upon the institution like bandages

with magical powers.

I worry.

When I hear administrators talk about the need

“to empower students”

and that it’s now, now

“more important than ever”

“to confront the ways”

which were tolerated for decades and centuries with nary a care

about how that looked

to insiders, outsiders or anyone else.

I worry.

When we mistake saying for showing

when answers come before questions

when there is no time for the time it takes

when power relations never enter the room

I worry.

When I worry

I may forget to wish

that we dedicate ourselves to learning as we teach

that we practice having the conversations we need

and get better

while we go deeper.

When I worry

I may forget to remind you

to look around

and consider the resources right where you are.

I bet you they’re there.

When I worry

I may forget to dream

dream

dream

Of what I hope tomorrow

might bring.